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AFCLC: Using Language, Regional Expertise, and Culture to Change the World

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  • By Lori Quiller, AFCLC Outreach Team

Manhattan and Washington, D.C. streets were buzzing Tuesday morning as people made their way to work and school. But, a few states west in Stonycreek Township, Somerset County, Pa., the day was well underway for the county’s 2,200 residents. It was just another day.

At 0846, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center Complex in Manhattan; at 0903, United Airlines Flight 173 struck the South Tower. Thirty-four minutes later, American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the west side of the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, causing a partial collapse of the building’s side. United Airlines Flight 93, hijacked by terrorists and diverted toward Washington, D.C., crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at 1003, when passengers regained control of the aircraft. The Twin Towers stood for 102 minutes before collapsing. 

What no one knew early that Tuesday morning became crystal clear a few hours later. America was under attack. Our enemies brought war to our soil, and the question became, was America’s military equipped to wage war on an enemy we don’t understand?

The Need for Language, Regional Expertise, and Culture Education

During his career, retired Brig. Gen. Gunther Mueller gained extensive experience in the language, regional expertise, and culture, or LREC, community and currently works as a part-time consultant to the Air Force Culture and Language Center at Air University.

“After 9/11 and during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were those in the Department of Defense who realized the U.S. could do better in understanding what we were dealing with,” Mueller explained. “Senior leaders increasingly emphasized the challenges of building and sustaining strong international partnerships to combat unknown threats to international security.”

According to Mueller, the DOD began highlighting some of the deficits in the military’s inability to work with people in their native culture and language. 

“It was obvious we were unprepared to go forward, and one of the things we needed to do was infuse the total force with more language and culture. At the time, the thinking was more language, more language, more language would be the answer. But, that was not the answer,” Mueller said. “Approaches to solving the problem varied widely across the government agencies from expanding access to commercial language learning software to establishing centers of culture and language, staffed by linguists and cultural experts. All efforts were designed to increase the workforce’s number, depth, and breadth in language and culture and were initially language-centric. People at the time believed if you were to give our Airman or soldiers enough language training, the culture training would come along naturally. That is just not the case.”

Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations confirmed the value of language and culture skills. U.S. Army General and USCENTCOM Commander Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf even described soldiers with these capabilities as “critical force multipliers” in modern warfare. But the passage of time between the first Gulf War and the attacks of 9/11 did not see any substantial additional U.S. military investment in these supposed multipliers. 

The Marriage of Culture and Language with the Air Force Culture and Language Center

AFCLC’s founding director Dr. Dan Henk observed “the aftermath of 9/11 found U.S. military personnel engaged worldwide in circumstances of unprecedented cultural complexity, charged with tasks that had been performed by small groups of carefully trained regional experts in earlier years. As a result, the pressing need now was for virtually all service members to have some ability to cope with cross-cultural challenges, and in many cases to rapidly move from one different culturally complex situation to another.”

And the situation grew far worse after September 2001. According to Henk, it took about three years before each branch tried a different initiative to meet this need to train troops in culturally complex situations. Instead, each branch looked for ways to increase its workforce number, depth, and breadth with a strong focus on language tactics first.

In the early 2000s, it was easy to find introductory culture courses online. But these basic classes in culture and language were not enough to meet the growing international demand and security challenges American military forces encountered in the war on terror.

According to Henk, the “green light” from the Chief of Staff of the Air Force in late 2004 enabled the Air War College to begin formulating an ambitious plan to enhance the cross-cultural capabilities of Airmen of all ranks. One of its first acts was to convene a conference in mid-2005 that brought together representatives from all the services and federal agencies engaged in the same effort to build the new capabilities. The conference shared best practices, connected subject matter experts, and started a series of annual meetings (eventually sponsored by the Army) that maintained constant communication within the emerging DOD “culture” community.

By 2006 AFCLC was official and headed by Henk, who was charged with applying his anthropological education and skillset to the cross-cultural needs of Airmen, initiating an intensive effort to recruit other scholars with related skills. The goal of the Center would be to make AFCLC the “go-to” agency for culture and language expertise, with the ability to provide materials, experts, and expertise to the service as needed, including the ability to assess cross-cultural competence.

“This required a heavy and continuing emphasis on recruiting the necessary scholars and practitioners, production of educational materials, programs to evaluate results, and ‘on-call’ response capabilities to sudden requirements. In its first decade of existence, AFCLC rose to all of these challenges,” Henk said.

Henk explained that taking an Airman, making him a Russian language expert and sending him to Uganda obviously would not work. That Airman will try to apply what little cultural experience he has through his Russian language training, but it wouldn’t make sense. So instead, creating a program that develops cross-cultural capability, or intercultural competence, is better.

And so, the Air Force Culture and Language Center was officially born to fulfill a vision of a successful marriage of culture education and language training to deliberately develop within the General Purpose Force self-motivated, cross-culturally competent, and language-enabled service members with working-level foreign language proficiency. Armed with these skills, Airmen – and now Space Force Guardians – can better support the application of air and space power through strengthening partnerships and interoperability.

Moving Forward with The Global Classroom

Moving forward, AFCLC’s mission became increasingly clear: Language, regional expertise, and culture education to enhance partner interoperability and adversary understanding across the spectrum of military operations. For AFCLC’s Director Howard Ward, one future challenge is expanding the accessibility of The Air Force’s Global Classroom.

“If AFCLC is going to succeed at the service level, we first have to understand who our customer is and does our customer know who we are. We also need to understand the operational relevance of what we produce for the Air Force. There was no reason to reinvent the vision of our founders because Gen. Mueller, Dr. Henk, and the other pioneers nailed it,” Ward said. 

According to Ward, the heart of AFCLC is making valuable and lasting connections with mission partners who can be more effective in their mission set with culture and language enabled Airmen.

“My priority from the beginning has been in terms of connections, and I saw that as a real challenge for the organization. Many people in the language and culture arena think most people don’t ‘get it’ about culture and language. I wholeheartedly disagree. I’m still waiting to meet the first person who doesn’t understand the importance of the combination of language and culture. Still, the real problem seems more about accessibility,” Ward explained.

For Ward, it’s essential to position AFCLC as a reach-back resource for military leaders worldwide and the Center to “meet Airmen and Guardians where they are” for the LREC education they need for their jobs at all stages of their careers.

Transforming the Language Enabled Airman Program (LEAP) into an agile, responsive deliberate development program is an effort providing an enormous return on investment today. Ward said, “LEAP is a great example of a lesson learned. As recently as Operation Allies Refuge, LEAP scholars were on the scene early and with great success because of the investment made left of “boom.” This level of culture and language skills cannot be “just in time trained” and OAR represents only one example of how LEAP scholars are operational game-changers.”

AFCLC further increased its reach, accessibility, and scale in late 2021 with the re-release of its Culture Guide App, which now includes educational courses and videos in a user-friendly mobile platform “untethered by government IT” to provide educational solutions at enterprise scale and velocity consistent with CSAF’s direction to transform the way Airmen learn across all facets of Air Force education and training curricula with an emphasis on competition.

“I’m very proud of the hard work many hands have done to literally put The Global Classroom in every Airman’s pocket. We have steadily looked at our customer base regarding accessibility and scale and determined that Culture General education must be accessible to everybody to provide baseline knowledge quickly. We’ve also built content and courses at the associate and graduate levels. Our customized courses for Senior Officers and Command Chiefs to prepare for key leader engagements is another way AFCLC is responsive to mission-oriented education. We operate in a world that is continually more global, connected, and coalition at the core of operations. The rapid rate of change is one of the most daunting challenges we face in a very complex security environment. Deliberately developing language enabled Airmen, crafting, and delivering courses and content tailored to the way today’s Airmen learn…that’s consistent with the heritage of Air University and how we effectively win the present and shape the future,” Ward explained.

AFCLC emblem. Air Force Culture and Language Center. Air Force's Global Classroom.

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